In 2007, at 23, I returned to my parents’ house, “Château Knish,” on the North Shore. This wasn’t country-house visiting. I was boomeranging and I was delirious—a distinguished nutcase who slept in the guest room, worked for a tech company, and rode the Metra. I tried to have relationships, though twentysomethings don’t really have sexual relationships. We text, we bang, and we eat Thai food. I had spent the previous three years attempting a career in music: a career of triumphantly making enemies and recording albums I wouldn’t release. With little interest in my old songs or desire to climb back into favor—unless, of course, I could complain about the climb—I moved back home to regroup, to withdraw, to take myself entirely to pieces, to play table-tennis with my mother.
The 19th century writer, Eugene Field, is buried—reinterred—in a small, shoddy cloister garden at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois. Once or twice a month, I would travel to Holy Comforter. The parish secretary informed me I was the first Eugene Field visitor in 17 years. I admired his writing, I wasn’t overenthusiastic, but we were both locked away on the North Shore, and I needed a dead literary neighbor. I once made a pilgrimage to the University of Chicago in search of Saul Bellow remnants. I found a shelf on which Bellow’s packages and thick letters were placed. Standing over a mailbox didn’t provide the same grand, romantic landscape as standing over a grave. So I continued visiting Holy Comforter. I brought a notebook and began writing a song called “Adult Things,” hoping to document these Field visits. I boiled down 35 verses to four over that year. Only a few lines mentioned Eugene Field. A woman I half-loved, but half-loved wholeheartedly, had recently ended our relationship. Our whatevership. Perhaps a tune would keep her caught up in my life. But songs do not seduce people; songs divide people. Sometimes they divide. Songs typically do nothing at all. The last time I saw her, on my television screen, she was standing behind Rahm Emanuel during his acceptance speech—exuberant and beaming and redheaded.
“Adult Things” premiered on UR Chicago in February, 2010. Soon after, UR redesigned its website and decided not to archive the article; it was sent wherever old write-ups go to pass away lightly. The blogosphere’s condo circuit. Overall, “Adult Things” was not an instantaneous hit. A self-released song will never suddenly be a hit. It will shamble through the universe for a while. It will be ignored. It will be dismissed. It will be embraced. With “Adult Things,” I tried to position myself for luck. I hired a publicist to help push the single. Bloggers wrote reviews in their indifferent yet guillotine-like blogger language. Chicago Tonight played instrumental versions—bumpers—between news segments. A jazz singer recorded a sturdy and accessible cover. But I still couldn’t perform at Schubas or Old Town School. My music still didn’t air on XRT or WBEZ. I still couldn’t keep a manager. I was utterly worn down by rejection and conflict yet still tussling with critics and talent buyers. For about three or four days I convinced myself I was dying. My doctor said it was just spring allergies lightly salted with stress and angst. Actually, he said I was suffering from "nervous exhaustion," a term which hasn't been used since 1920. The issue: I wasn’t a thriving songwriter, nor was I failed one. Instead, I was between success and failure. Achieving local success means you feel like a world-famous artist but look like a hobbyist. "Success," however, is a spectacularly messy word. I wasn’t trying to be popular; I was trying to be repatriated. I would look at Chicago and misquote Philip Roth: “How could I leave? How could I go? Everything I hate is here.”
Time bowdlerizes everyone, especially Chicago artists. In the late 1800s, Eugene Field “was about as well-known as a bottleman and writer of scatological ballads…as he was as a children's poet.” (TIME Magazine, 1939) Now we only remember “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” and “Little Boy Blue.” The issue: Field’s light verse is uncomfortably light and his children’s poetry is, well, children’s poetry. Late 19th century children’s poetry. He is therefore destined to have an awkward, shakable legacy—the type of poet who slipped off a barstool and landed on Mount Parnassus. Or Mount Trashmore. Yet this gaunt, top-hatted, largely forgotten writer cannot fully disappear into oblivion while parks and elementary schools are still being named after him; while you can still find Love-Songs of Childhood at your library’s book sale; while youngish singer-songwriters still visit his grave: a soft, narrow spot wherein one can stand, or collapse, placidly.
David Safran is a peerless singer-songwriter who writes provocative, stunning music crammed with ironies, unforgettable lines, and a wickedly dry wit. UR Chicago called him “a keen, unflinching recorder of his life…David Safran delivers a voice unlike anyone heard today.” Chicago Public Radio described Safran as “a great storyteller who writes great music….there is a certain sadness and honesty in [his] voice not heard since one Johnny Cash.” Safran’s songs have appeared widely—from PBS and NPR to The Deli Magazine and Cheeky Chicago—and have been covered by other artists from New York to Denmark. David Safran’s debut album, “Adult Things,” was released in November 2011.